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The "Stuff" of Morality: Is it Instinct or More?

Posted Aug 25 2008 3:17pm
I often ponder the morality of my motives.

Why did I really let the guy trying to cut me off on the 405 in ahead of me? Was it because I felt it was the "right" thing to do, or was it because I was just not up for the usual vehicle-to-vehicle combat, standard fare on LA's insanity-riddled freeway system? And if letting that person in was the "right" thing to do, why was it?



Or the homeless person standing in front of the fast-food, gas station or convenience store. Why would I feel compelled to hand over a few dollars to someone who would prefer asking for a hand-out, rather than becoming employed? Because I felt it truly was the "right" or moral thing to do--or for some other deeply rooted reason?



Why do any of us feel a thought or action is the morally "right" position to take under certain circumstances or in select situations? Is instinct the stimulus, or societal moral codes?



Consider the basis for the moral codes that might govern the following scenarios originally devised by psychologist Jonathan Haidt:



Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom , too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects , but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception . They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

To view the complete article by Steven Pinker for NY Times Magazine in its entirety.

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